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Caucasus: Analysis from Washington -- Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict Risks Reignition

Washington, 8 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The new Armenian government's hard line on Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to torpedo the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group, to further divide the region and the broader international community, and possibly to reignite the conflict itself.

But precisely because of these dangers, the Armenian government's position that Karabakh must not return to Azerbaijani control may force leaders both in the region and beyond to focus anew on this problem before it gets any further out of hand.

On Thursday, Armenian foreign minister Vartan Oskanyan said that Yerevan was preparing new package of proposals to solve its long-running dispute with Azerbaijan over the future status of Karabakh. But he noted that Armenia would never agree to returning that Armenian-dominated region to Azerbaijani control.

Consequently, Oskanyan said, "negotiations over its status should begin from a clean sheet of paper so that there are no limits from the very start."

Such a clearly expressed position at least potentially represents a major turning point in a conflict that has cost more than 35,000 lives over the last decade, driven over a million people from their homes, and led to Armenian occupation of more than 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory.

First of all, Oskanian's argument represents a near total rejection of the ideas and approach of Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That group, currently co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, has sought to resolve the Karabakh issue on the basis of the so-called Lisbon Principles.

As read out by the OSCE chairman at the Lisbon summit in 1996, these principles state that Nagorno-Karabakh should remain part of Azerbaijan, that the rights of Armenians there should be protected both individually and collectively, and that the international community should provide specific guarantees for this arrangement.

Moreover and particularly since the ceasefire was arranged in 1994, the Minsk Group has generally pushed a step-by-step approach to the resolution of the conflict, arguing that such a strategy is the only one that can work in a situation where the parties remain so far apart.

Second, Oskanian's statement puts Armenia at odds not only with Azerbaijan but with a large part of the international community that had backed the OSCE Minsk Group as the best hope for peace in the Caucasus.

On the one hand, Azerbaijan has accepted both the Lisbon Principles and the step-by-step approach, and Baku can now be expected to portray itself as a good international citizen in contrast to Armenia. But at the same time, Azerbaijani officials are likely to be driven to adopt an even harder line in response to the latest Armenian position. And that in turn will only make further talks more difficult.

Indeed, Azerbaijani officials have already said that they cannot accept any of Oskanian's ideas. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev's national security adviser Vaga Gulizade has already indicated that Baku will not agree to any plan that "does not leave Karabakh in Azerbaijan."

But on the other, the Armenian position is likely to divide the international community, forcing various countries to choose sides even if they would prefer not to. Thus, many Western states committed to the OSCE principles are likely to look with increasing favor on Azerbaijan especially because of their additional interests in Caspian basin oil, and Russia by contrast may increasingly support Armenia both to limit Western influence in the Caucasus and to expand its own. And that division, prompted by the Armenian declaration, will not only further complicate any future talks. But it will also likely have an impact on the broader relations between countries forced to choose.

And third, and most dangerously, Oskanian's words may inflame the situation to the point that at least some on one side or another may consider a return to violence as a means to advancing their own interests.

Neither Yerevan nor Baku seems likely to sponsor such a course, but neither capital controls all the people on its territory or all the forces at work across the Caucasus.

Because these risks are so great and so real, Oskanian's words may force at least some, both in the region and beyond, to explore some new ways to reach a settlement lest a conflict in a place few had heard of a decade ago contribute to an exacerbation of the situation in both.